The 2020 budget season has barely begun, and the Navy has already run into fierce opposition on Capitol Hill over its plan to retire the USS Truman a quarter-century earlier than expected. Truman is one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, operating 85 combat aircraft on a flight deck measuring over four square acres. Large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are key enablers of U.S. maritime supremacy, so Navy support for retiring one before its time is a big surprise.
The first thing you need to know about this foolish move is that it wasn’t the Navy’s idea. Navy leaders will have to work hard to conceal their glee if Congress refuses to go along—just as it deep-sixed an Obama administration proposal to retire the USS George Washington prematurely in 2014. The Navy only recently stated that it needed a dozen large-deck carriers to support national strategy, and federal law (10 U.S.C. 8062) requires that it maintain a fleet of at least 11.
So why would the sea service propose a move that will reduce the number of carriers to ten for decades to come? The reason is that it was under pressure from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to free up money for other activities, especially development of unmanned warships and other advanced weapons deemed necessary to cope with the growing military power of China. Skipping Truman’s mid-life refueling and complex overhaul would save billions of dollars, not to mention the billions of dollars in additional savings over 20+ years that comes from operating one less carrier.
However, here’s what gets lost in the bargain. The number of carriers that can be kept forward-deployed in places like the Persian Gulf on a typical day falls to three, and all the remaining carriers get overworked—so they wear out sooner. It was not so long ago that trying to meet all the demands of U.S. combatant commanders with only ten carriers resulted in half the carriers stuck in maintenance due to over-use. Just because you cut the number of carriers doesn’t mean you cut U.S. overseas commitments.
You also lose a carrier air wing, because there’s no point in maintaining ten of them when you know at least one carrier will be in heavy maintenance all the time. But the most important thing you lose is the flexibility of having enough sea bases that can project power ashore from far away in a world where 80% of the people and commerce are found within a hundred miles of the sea. We don’t buy aircraft carriers to keep aviators employed, we buy them because they are the most effective way of enforcing the peace when land bases may not be available, and can be easily targeted by capable adversaries.
That is what China plans to do if there is an east-west war in the Pacific—it will target U.S. forces in the early hours of the conflict, wiping out everything the U.S. military has that might be used against the Middle Kingdom. Except for warships at sea. China won’t be able to find most of those because the first U.S. step in such a war will be to destroy China’s targeting system, and a carrier moving at 35 miles per hour can be anywhere in a 700-square-mile area within 30 minutes. After 90 minutes, it can be anywhere in a 6,000-square-mile area. Without their targeting complex, the Chinese will not be able to find carriers or other surface warships in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific.
This all gets quite complicated because there are undersea, surface and overhead dimensions to the fight, not to mention possible action in orbit and on the electromagnetic spectrum. But the bottom line is that the Navy has plenty of options for minimizing China’s ability to target our warships in a conflict, and even if the Chinese somehow manage to find a carrier, the ships are nearly impossible to sink unless a nuclear weapon is used. If that happens, all bets are off. Beijing would only employ nuclear weapons as a last resort, knowing their use might escalate to an exchange destroying the Chinese economy.
The Navy understands all this and has detailed war plans for using its aircraft carriers and other sea-based assets effectively in a conflict. The Chief of Naval Operations recently observed that U.S. carriers are actually less vulnerable today than they were two or three decades ago, due to advances in U.S. military technology and operating concepts. So why would Pentagon leaders want to retire Truman early? There are basically two reasons: to save money, and to prepare for an imaginary future in which China might be much more militarily capable than today.
The savings argument is weak. If you add up all the savings that retiring Truman early will generate over the next quarter-century, they will total roughly one day’s worth of federal spending at the rate reflected in the president’s 2020 budget request. And that’s assuming compensatory spending is not required to cope with the reduced carrier presence in distant regions.
The future threat environment is a more persuasive argument for adjusting the Navy’s force structure, but it is grounded in guesses about future Chinese behavior that are unprovable. We have been down this road before, with military seers telling us America’s military needed to be transformed to cope with the more capable adversaries of tomorrow. It turned out what we weren’t ready for were rag-tag terrorists and improvised explosive devices. But now the transformationists are back, and they have had a profound impact on acting defense secretary Pat Shanahan—who has never had to think about this stuff before.
Navy leaders are more than happy to pursue bold new ideas. Their 2020 budget briefing this week is full of new vectors for investment. But they don’t believe their aircraft carriers will be vulnerable for a long time to come. Isn’t it a bit odd that at the same time the Pentagon is talking about retiring a carrier early, it has just approved the construction of two new carriers utilizing the same basic hull-form? There seems to be a disconnect in the Pentagon’s logic.
So, although the Navy will go through all the motions of defending its proposal to retire Truman prematurely when Congress pushes back on the idea, don’t be fooled. It knows it needs more than ten carriers to execute national strategy; it knows that large-deck carriers are hard to find and harder to sink in a war; and it knows how to take down China’s targeting complex in the early hours of a future war so that all the long-range anti-ship weapons in the Chinese arsenal won’t matter much. The Navy and America are better off with Truman in the fleet, doing its job.